“Some of the Top Things Money Can’t Buy:
Inner Peace. Integrity. Love. Character. Patience. Common sense. Dignity.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Think of someone you know, or know of, someone with a quiet self-assurance, a person with a strong moral compass, who is not swayed by passing fancies, a man or woman who sets a clear direction for their lives, who is dependable and trustworthy. Who doesn’t give his or her word lightly, but having given it, always follows through. A person whom others go to for advice or comfort. These are people who set an example for others to follow, who people think of when presented with a problem.
Perhaps someone like this is a key person in your life – a parent or grandparent or other close relative. Maybe they were a teacher or mentor in your school or university. Perhaps they took you under their wing in your profession or trade. Or perhaps they are a friend or acquaintance that good fortune sent your way. If so, you are indeed fortunate.
Even when you only know about them because they are a public or historical figure – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, The Queen, Viktor Frankel – and a personal meeting is not on the cards, a meeting of hearts and minds is certainly available through their writings or on film or by accounts of their actions and words.
I was reflecting on people like this and how, when you encounter such a person, the meeting is to be treasured. It has been an immense privilege in my life to have met many people who are just like this. Strong people in the true sense of that word, not forceful or combative, but steady and resilient. A source of comfort and strength and wisdom.
One of my friends, a man who meditated and followed a spiritual path for years, a man with quiet dignity, was speaking to one of his colleagues. He was surprised when she said to him: “You know how you speak about your spiritual teachers? That’s how I speak about you.”
I raise that anecdote because it was a surprise to that man, and I wondered if all those amazing people that I admire, and who are respected the world over, would react in a similar way. It occurred to me that humility like this is one of the hallmarks of such a person.
Put it round the other way. If you come across someone who appears strong and dignified and selfless, but you get the sense that they are rather too much in love with the camera and the press corps, and that their very favourite person is the one who looks back at them from their bathroom mirror. Well, my sense is that there is something fishy going on.
The man or woman who truly has all the qualities we admire, is the last one to proclaim their own greatness. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins said the hallmark of an effective leader is they look into a mirror when things go wrong – they take responsibility, they examine what they themselves did to get into the mess, and what they now need to do to get out of it. When things go right, these people, these natural leaders, look through a window – they see their team, they praise their colleagues, they share the acclaim.
What words can we use to describe this confluence of fine qualities? Calm, generosity, integrity; good character, good manners, ethical behaviour, respect for others. There are many words that could be used to describe this combination of virtues, but the one that I would like to look at is dignity.
Dignity is a subtle, elusive quality, but you know it when you see it. Someone with dignity carries themself with a calm assurance and confidence; they have a quiet strength, integrity and dependability. This quality of dignity engenders respect and a feeling of admiration.
The English word ‘dignity’ comes from the Latin dignitas: worthiness, worth, honour; that which is fitting and proper.
With dignity therefore, there is worth, value and substance, linked to that which is fitting, proper and appropriate to the situation. So, a man or woman of dignity is worthy of honour and behaves in a way that fits the situation. Among friends they are friendly, when in a position of leadership, they are respectful of those to whom they are responsible, and decisive when action is required. They are careful of the feelings and needs of others, but are not swayed by personal considerations from doing the right thing.
From this we can see that people with dignity have inner strength and carry themselves with a sense of calm purpose and integrity.
And they also see the best in others. The reason for this is simple. We all see the world to a greater or less extent as a projection of our own thoughts and feelings. This is a very big topic and may be the subject for a follow-up article.
For now, we can say that a dignified person with strength, integrity and goodwill in their heart looks out on the world and sees those same qualities. Perhaps hidden, perhaps at times less manifest in some people than in others. But they always seek to identify and draw out the best.
And this is, of course reflected in their actions as well. Giving their best, speaking honestly, showing kindness, acting decisively. And encouraging and inspiring those exact same qualities in those around them. All this is part of dignity.
Sanskrit, as always, can fill out our understanding of the true nature of this quality of dignity. The Sanskrit word for dignity is Māhātmyam (माहात्म्यम्). This is a compound of māhā, which means ‘great’, and ātman which means ‘essential indwelling Self, or soul’. So Māhātmyam means great-souled, having a great or noble nature, high-minded, highly gifted, exceedingly wise.
Perhaps at this point we should resist the temptation to become over-analytical, to delve too far into these concepts. Perhaps we can let them stand for themselves. We can overdo the probing into notions of nobility, worth and honour and, yes, dignity. We run the same risk as the watchmaker, laying all the pieces of the clock out on his workbench. All the separate elements that go to make up a clock are there, but if you want to know the time, you’re out of luck.
Sir Isaiah Berlin, a twentieth century professor of philosophy, history and politics, once in an interview used the word ‘decency’. He was asked what he meant by that word. He replied that he would not define it. He said, “We all know what it means, it means ‘decency’.”
Let’s give the word dignity the same treatment. We’ll leave our meditation on dignity at this point and turn to look at how we can make it practical. How can we become dignified? What can we do to grow into this wonderful quality?
In the Taittiriya Upanishad there is some very practical advice:
When you don’t know what to think or say or do in a particular situation, think of what some wise man or woman of your neighbourhood would think, say or do in the same situation. And do likewise.
To become dignified, think of someone you know, or someone you’ve heard of – the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, your grandmother – and ask yourself what would they think, say or do if they were in this situation? And then think, speak and act like them.
There is an even simpler version of this practice. Whatever situation you are in, ask yourself: What would a wise man or woman do here?
One of my students, who received this exercise, pursued it with quiet enthusiasm. After a week of giving it a go, she said that she found herself much more attentive to the needs and feelings of others. Her focus was sharpened. She listened when they spoke and was careful of how she spoke to them. When she asked herself what would a wise man or woman do here, there was always a clear simple answer.
When I asked her where this answer came from she was silent. Then she said that it came from inside, from a still clear space within.
So who, I asked, was and is the wise person in your particular neighbourhood?
She was delighted and a little surprised to discover that she herself was that wise woman, and asking a simple question put her in touch with that limitless well-spring of inner wisdom.
And to bring this anecdote full circle, as this conversation with the student proceeded, I could feel her growing into that acknowledgment of her own innate wisdom, and I could see her take on that sense of strength and dignity.
Try this exercise.
Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, stop and ask yourself: What would a wise man or woman do here? And one day, probably without you even knowing it, someone will think of you when they wish to grow in strength, calm and dignity, and they’ll copy you.